WASHINGTON — Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia used his executive power on Friday to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 convicted felons, circumventing the Republican-run legislature. The action effectively overturns a Civil War-era provision in the state’s Constitution aimed, he said, at disenfranchising African-Americans.
The sweeping order, in a swing state that could play a role in deciding the November presidential election, will enable all felons who have served their prison time and finished parole or probation to register to vote. Most are African-Americans, a core constituency of Democrats, Mr. McAuliffe’s political party.
Amid intensifying national attention over harsh sentencing policies that have disproportionately affected African-Americans, governors and legislatures around the nation have been debating — and often fighting over — moves to restore voting rights for convicted felons. Virginia imposes especially harsh restrictions, barring felons from voting for life.
In Kentucky, Gov. Matt Bevin, a newly elected Republican, recently overturned an order enacted by his Democratic predecessor that was similar to the one Mr. McAuliffe signed Friday. In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, vetoed a measure to restore voting rights to convicted felons, but Democrats in the state legislature overrode him in February and an estimated 44,000 former prisoners who are on probation can now register to vote.
“There’s no question that we’ve had a horrible history in voting rights as relates to African-Americans — we should remedy it,” Mr. McAuliffe said in an interview Thursday, previewing the announcement he made on the steps of Virginia’s Capitol, just yards from where President Abraham Lincoln once addressed freed slaves. “We should do it as soon as we possibly can.”
Republicans in the Virginia Legislature have resisted measures to expand voting rights for convicted felons, and Mr. McAuliffe’s action, which he said was justified under an expansive legal interpretation of his executive clemency authority, provoked an immediate backlash. Virginia Republicans issued a statement Friday accusing the governor of “political opportunism” and “a transparent effort to win votes.”
“Those who have paid their debts to society should be allowed full participation in society,” said the statement from the party chairman, John Whitbeck. “But there are limits.” He said Mr. McAuliffe was wrong to issue a blanket restoration of rights, even to those who “committed heinous acts of violence.
Nationally, an estimated 5.85 million Americans are denied the right to vote because of felony convictions, according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington research organizations, which says one in five African-Americans in Virginia cannot vote.
Only two states, Maine and Vermont, have no voting restrictions on felons; Virginia is among four – the others are Kentucky, Florida and Iowa – that have the harshest restrictions.
Friday’s shift in Virginia is part of a national trend toward restoring voter rights to felons, based in part on the hope that it will aid former prisoners’ re-entry into society. Over the last two decades about 20 states have acted to ease their restrictions, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
In Kentucky, Mr. Bevin, who took office in November, promptly overturned an executive order issued by his predecessor, Steven L. Beshear, just before he left office. Then, last week, Mr. Bevin signed into law a less expansive measure, allowing felons to petition judges to vacate their convictions, which would enable them to vote.
Previous governors in Florida and Iowa took executive action to ease their lifetime bans, but in each case, a subsequent governor restored the tough rules.
Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, said Mr. McAuliffe’s decision would have lasting consequences because it will remain in effect at least until January 2018, when the governor leaves office.
“This will be the single most significant action on disenfranchisement that we’ve ever seen from a governor,” Mr. Mauer said, “and it’s noteworthy that it’s coming in the middle of this term, not the day before he leaves office. So there may be some political heat but clearly he’s willing to take that on, which is quite admirable.”
Myrna Pérez, director of a voting rights project at the Brennan Center, said Mr. McAuliffe’s move was particularly important because Virginia has had such restrictive laws on voting by felons. Still, she said,“Compared to the rest of the country, this is a very middle of the road policy.’’
Ms. Pérez said a number of states already had less restrictive policies than the one announced by Mr. McAuliffe. Fourteen states allow felons to vote after their prison terms are completed even while they remain on parole or probation.
Advocates who have been working with the Virginia governor say they are planning to fan out into Richmond communities Friday to start registering people.
Experts say with the stroke of his pen, Mr. McAuliffe has allowed convicted felons to begin registering to vote, and that their voting rights cannot be revoked — even if a new governor rescinds the order for future released prisoners.
But the move led to accusations that the governor was playing politics; he is a longtime friend of — and fund-raiser for — Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee for president, and former President Bill Clinton.
In the interview, Mr. McAuliffe said that he was not acting for political reasons, and that few people outside his immediate staff knew of his plan. He said he did not consult with Mrs. Clinton or her campaign before making the decision.
The executive order builds on steps the governor had already taken to restore voting rights to 18,000 Virginians since the beginning of his term, and he said he believed his authority to issue the decision was “ironclad.”
Prof. A. E. Dick Howard of the University of Virginia School of Law, the principal draftsman of a revised Constitution adopted by Virginia in 1971, agreed, and said the governor had “ample authority.” But Professor Howard, who advised Mr. McAuliffe on the issue, said the move might well be challenged in court. The most likely argument, he said, is that the governor cannot restore voting rights to an entire class of people all at once.
Virginia’s Constitution has prohibited felons from voting since the Civil War; the restrictions were expanded in 1902, as part of a package that included poll taxes and literacy tests.
In researching the provisions, advisers to the governor turned up a 1906 report that quoted Carter Glass, a Virginia state senator, as saying they would “eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State in less than five years, so that in no single county of the Commonwealth will there be the least concern felt for the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government.”
Mr. McAuliffe, who took office in 2014 and campaigned to restore voting rights to felons, said that he viewed disenfranchisement as “a remnant of the poll tax” and that he had been “trying to figure out what more I can possibly do.”
The governor’s action Friday will not apply to felons released in the future; his aides say Mr. McAuliffe intends to issue similar orders on a monthly basis to cover people as they are released.
“People have served their time and done their probation,” Mr. McAuliffe said. “I want you back in society. I want you feeling good about yourself. I want you voting, getting a job, paying taxes.’’
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MURFREESBORO, Tennessee (AP) — Outside the $200-a-week motel room that Steven Gibbs and his family call home, the afternoon sun sparkled. Inside, though, he had the curtains pulled tight. After working third shift at a round-the-clock McDonalds, his wife, Debbie, sat on the edge of one bed, her eyes closed. But the hour didn’t matter.
“Half the time I’m scared to go outside the door,” said Gibbs, 61, a former construction worker jailed twice since late 2013 after he couldn’t pay hundreds of dollars in probation fees for driving on a suspended license. Despite a court order barring the county and a private probation company from jailing him again, those fears lingered.
“I don’t trust none of them anymore,” Gibbs said, in late January. The company continued charging him fees until last week, when a judge agreed to put him on a new plan, supervised instead by the court, to pay down fines he owes the county.
Probation is supposed to substitute for jail or prison, requiring offenders to report regularly and maintain good behavior. But in this fast-growing county outside Nashville and more than a dozen states, probation for misdemeanors is a profit-making — and increasingly contentious — venture.
The for-profit prison industry is estimated at as much as $7 billion to $8 billion, and both Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., have spoken forcefully — Sanders even more so than Clinton — about a desire to phase out private prisons as part of the U.S. criminal system.
“In my view, corporations should not be allowed to make a profit by building more jails and keeping more Americans behind bars,” Sanders recently said. “Criminal justice and public safety are, without a doubt, the responsibility of the citizens of our country, not private corporations, and they should be carried out by those who answer to voters, not those who answer to investors.”
On the campaign trail, Clinton said that “we should end private prisons and private detention centers.”
Read the entire story on cnbc.com.
NPR Story by Carrie Johnson
A bipartisan task force created by Congress issued “an urgent call to action” Tuesday to overhaul the nation’s federal prisons and reduce the number of U.S. inmates by 60,000 over the next decade.
A new report from the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections found that punitive mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes represent “the primary driver” of prison overcrowding. The report recommends they be reserved for the most violent offenders.
The report said almost 80 percent of inmates convicted of drug crimes had no prior criminal history. And it urged Congress to create a path for prisoners who have served more than 15 years to apply for shorter sentences by giving judges a “second look” at their cases.
“The federal government, the Congress and the Bureau of Prisons need to take a hard look at how sentencing and prisons really operate in this country,” task force member Laurie Robinson told NPR in an interview. “We think the federal criminal justice system suffers from a one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing and rehabilitation, and that doesn’t really serve the interests of public safety.”
The report also urges more oversight and resources for the Federal Bureau of Prisons — and for programs that return inmates to their communities and foster bonds with their families.
“We certainly can’t continue to do what we’re doing now,” said another task force member and former public defender, Cynthia Roseberry. “We need to ensure that once a person serves their sentence, we stamp that ticket paid in full, and part of that means preparing them for re-entry.”
The task force consists of former lawmakers, corrections officials, academics and other people who’ve long interacted with the justice system. Despite the wide variety in background and political outlook, three people on the task force told NPR the group easily reached consensus.
Recommendations in the report go far beyond legislative proposals to overhaul the corrections system in the House and the Senate. It’s not clear whether the bills will pass before the presidential election intensifies this year.
That doesn’t bother Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who’s been raising concerns about efforts to be more lenient on drug criminals.”These defendants are for the most part very serious offenders,” said Sessions, a former U.S. attorney. “Federal prosecutors … they don’t focus on petty crimes and small cases.” Sessions said the administration and lawmakers need to be careful not to “retreat” from criminal justice policies that helped bring crime to near-record lows. He pointed out a recent case in Ohio, where a man who had benefited from changes to the federal sentencing guidelines has been charged with killing his ex-girlfriend and two of her children earlier this month.
Advocates who want to see changes to the justice system acknowledge that some offenders will commit new crimes if they’re released. But they say research gives prison officials more and better tools to identify inmates who pose the most danger. And they say the system locks up too many people for too long, producing overcrowded prisons where administrators don’t have the resources to offer drug treatment, education and family interactions.
The task force is named after Colson, who served time in prison for Watergate-era misdeeds and later went on to found an advocacy group for inmates called the Prison Fellowship.
Craig DeRoche, senior vice president for policy and advocacy, said a central principle of the organization is that after people pay their debt to society, “they are capable of being transformed and making significant contributions in their communities.”
Members of the task force said they visited a federal prison in Atlanta, where they met groups of elderly or ill inmates, some of whom had applied for compassionate release. Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz has found the program is little-used, in part due to resistance from prosecutors and a nettlesome bureaucracy. Robinson said she heard from those inmates who could barely talk about their “lack of hope. “Certainly this is an area where more requests could be granted without risk to public safety,” she said.
On Monday, President Obama is announcing a new order to reduce potential discrimination against former convicts in the hiring process for federal government employees.
It is a step towards what many criminal justice reformers call “ban the box” – the effort to eliminate requirements that job applicants check a box on their applications if they have a criminal record. While the rule was once seen as a common sense way for employers to screen for criminal backgrounds, it has been increasingly criticized as a hurdle that fosters employment discrimination against former inmates, regardless of the severity of their offense or how long ago it occurred. Banning the box delays when employers learn of an applicant’s record.
President Obama is unveiling the plan on a visit to a treatment center in New Jersey, a state where Republican Gov. Chris Christie signed a ban the box bill into law last year. Hillary Clinton endorsed ban the box last week, while Republican Sen. Rand Paul also introduced similar federal legislation, with Democrat Cory Booker, to seal criminal records for non-violent offenders.
The White House says it is “encouraged” by such legislation in a new statement, but emphasizes the president’s order will take immediate action, mandating that the federal government’s HR department “delay inquiries into criminal history until later in the hiring process.”
President Obama spoke to several federal prisoners about that very approach in July, when he was the first sitting president to visit an American prison.
“If the disclosure of a criminal record happens later in a job application process,” he told them, “you’re more likely to be hired.” Obama described what many studies show – that when many employers see the box checked for an applicant’s criminal record, they weed them out without ever looking at their qualifications.
“If they have a chance to at least meet you,” the president continued, “you’re able to talk to them about your life, what you’ve done, maybe they give you a chance.”
About 60-to-75% of former inmates cannot find work within their first year out of jail, according to the Justice Department, a huge impediment to re-entering society.
Research shows the existence of a criminal record can reduce an employer’s interest in applicant by about 50%, and that when white and black applicants both have records, employers are far less likely to call back a black applicant than a white one. As a 2009 re-entry study in New York city found, “the criminal record penalty suffered by white applicants (30%) is roughly half the size of the penalty for blacks with a record (60%).”
Obama’s move also comes in the wake of a growing movement for criminal justice reform – from broad calls by groups like Blacks Live Matter to a specific campaign on ban the box that ranged from half the Senate Democratic caucus to civil rights groups to artists like John Legend.
On Monday, Legend told MSNBC, “We applaud the President’s decision to end this unfair bias against people who have served their time and paid their debt to society. We hope that Congress and state legislatures across the country will follow suit.”
The President is announcing several other measures Monday, including public housing and money for re-entry programs, and he is speaking about prison reform in a speech and an exclusive interview with NBC Nightly News Anchor Lester Holt.
Free At Last!
The 2014 regional documentary, “Outcasts: Surviving the Culture of Rejection,” is now available for free viewing online on at cultureofrejection.org.
Since its regional premiere, four film festival selections, and its broadcast debut on East Tennessee PBS, “Outcasts: Surviving the Culture of Rejection,” has continued to send ripples of new awareness through audiences about today’s criminal justice system. Aditionally, Governor Haslam appointed a 27-member task force to explore recommendations to reduce recidivism and urge sentencing reform. The topic of criminal justice reform has escalated to a national discussion and become an important 2016 presidential campaign issue.
In order to continue informing the issues surrounding the film, producer Jane Hillhouse, and writer/director Stephen Newton , have made the complete version of “Outcasts” available for free online.
Please share the link below with friends and family, or with anyone you think needs to see the film.
To schedule a screening for your organization, college, or church, please visit cultureofrejectoin.org
In August 2014, three months after the release of “Outcasts,” Governor Haslam appointed 27 members to the Governor’s Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism, including six members of the legislature, five current and former district attorneys general, three sheriffs and police chiefs, a county mayor, five executive branch officials, three judges, one public defender, one victim advocate, one community programming provider, and two representatives of the business community. Their mission was to improve public safety in Tennessee by identifying (1) strategies to reduce recidivism among individuals leaving prisons and jails and (2) changes to sentencing laws and practices that will more effectively use criminal justice resources to reduce crime and address the growth of the prison and jail population.
To achieve its mission, the Task Force was supported by the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) and its staff that traveled the state soliciting stakeholder opinions, organized presentations for Task Force meetings, and facilitated four working groups: Sentencing Structure, Sentencing Classifications and Enhancements, Community Supervision, and Programming and Treatment.
Among the recommendations to reduce recidivism were:
- Establish individualized case management plans for felony offenders on community supervision (both probation and post-prison), thereby reducing the number of standard and special conditions and tailoring the conditions of supervision to fit each offender’s individual risks and needs.
- Invest in evidence-based, cost effective, and coordinated transitional programming and treatment services both during and after incarceration.
- Ensure that all incarcerated felony offenders are released, and supported by, a system of post-release community supervision.
- Develop and implement a system of positive incentives for those on community supervision, including but not limited to a reduction in the time period of supervision.
- Increase the employability of those with criminal convictions by taking steps to help them keep or obtain driver’s licenses or state photo identifications.
- Examine the management and treatment of sex offenders to reduce recidivism and protect society.
- Raise the felony property crime threshold to $1,000.
- Support a Social Impact Bond model of investment as a way of funding promising re-entry programs.
The full draft copy of the Task Force report may be downloaded here. TF final report draft July 31 2015
We commend Governor Haslam, the TDOC, the Vera Institute and the 27 members of the Task Force. Hopefully, once the report’s recommendations are implemented, thousands of formerly incarcerated individuals can achieve another chance at a productive, fulfilling life.
Petition by Elizabeth Stewart
The following is from change.org:
My son Jeremy Stewart has been given 70 years in prison for stealing. He was convicted of burglarizing two homes while the residents were out. There was no confrontation, no threats, and no violence at the time California had a harsh three strikes law. My son had two prior nonviolent offenses, the judge made the decision to enforce the law to the fullest.
I have been fighting for a fairer punishment ever since.
Under previous California law, Jeremy would have most likely been sentenced to about 12-15 years in prison. But because of California’s 3 Strikes law, Jeremy received a harsher sentence than drug cartel hit men who had confessed to killing more than 20 people. They only got 25-years-to-life.
Jeremy’s poor decisions were made while he was dealing with a serious drug addiction and depression. He needed treatment and rehabilitation.This doesn’t excuse his conduct and he knows he needs to face consequences for his actions. But 70 years to life with no good time credits allowed, means he won’t be eligible for parole until he is 96. The cost, 5 million dollars to taxpayers. This is an unjust and inhumane death sentence, all for nonviolent offense.
Jeremy is not the only one being punished — I am raising his two children in his absence. Every day, these innocent young children suffer emotionally missing their father. I struggle financially working to afford day care and their basic needs.This unjust sentence means his children will never be able share the same four walls as their father. He should have an opportunity to earn the right to return home to provide for his two young children, Heatherly and David, currently ages 5 and 6.
Today Jeremy is serving his sentence at Calipatria State Prison. He tutors other inmates, leads the Christian worship services and the Narcotics Anonymous group. He currently has a 4.2 GPA through Coastline College and will graduate in November 2015. He has been a model prisoner.
Jeremy made a terrible mistake, but should a nonviolent crime put him behind bars for life? A Petition for Clemency has been sent to Governor Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown to exercise his discretion and reduce Jeremy’s sentence. I am asking the Governor to reduce his sentence to 20 years. I humbly and respectfully request your support.
Please sign my petition and stand by me and my family as we fight to give Jeremy the chance to come home one day.
As you know, we were honored to be selected by the Push Film Festival in Bristol, Tennessee and Virginia. Push is our fourth film festival and since it’s a 30 minute drive away, the closest to us. The screening of “Outcasts: Surviving the Culture of Rejection” was held at the Paramount Center for the Performing Arts, on the Tennessee side of State Street, which divides the town right down the middle between Tennessee and Virginia. The festival jurors awarded the film with a Certificate of Excellence.
It was exciting to see “Outcasts” on the big screen in such a grand old theater. It was like stepping back in time when we took our seats inside. Before the show, pipe organ music from a giant Wurlitzer organ (you can see the pipes) fills the entire theater…and suddenly you have time-traveled to an era when movie theaters offered much more than popcorn. As a boy, I knew that once I took my seat in the darkened theater, I was in a different world where anything was possible, and more than eager to suspend my disbelief and live inside the film with the actors. I had that same feeling today at the Paramount.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Paramount is an excellent example of the art deco motion picture palaces built in the late 1920’s and early 30’s. The restoration in the 90s retained the Paramount’s opulent, richly embellished interior. The original Venetian-styled murals and the art deco ambiance were faithfully recreated. The auditorium holds 756. You’ll feel as though you are a part of the performance from every seat in the theater.
After the screening, there was a Q & A for nearly 45 minutes. We answered a lot of questions and were happy to see many long-time “Outcasts” fans in the audience, like Maura Ubinger, who have seen the film on television, online, from a DVD, or at other local screenings and were there to support the festival and us. It was a great day for the film.
Hats off to Rusty Sheridan and a big thank you to everyone connected to the first annual Push Film Festival.
Great news! Outcasts will be screened at the PUSH! Film Festival, a first-year event that will take place on the weekend of June 12—14, 2015 in bustling Historic Downtown Bristol TN/VA.
Outcasts will be shown Sunday June 14th at 11am at the Paramount Theatre (518 State St. Bristol, TN).
As a celebration of the cinematic and visual arts in the heart of the twin cities of Bristol, the festival will bring diverse films to our community and showcase the best regional filmmakers. PUSH! aims to expand the artistic image of our region, engage new audiences in the world of film, and inspire creativity in all of us. The festival will also play host to exciting parties and workshops for filmmakers and audience members alike. PUSH! will offer something for people of all ages; you won’t want to miss any of the three days of this unique cultural experience.